When I started doing volunteer work as a young university student, newly arrived in Toronto, I did it for personal reasons—to create some sense of community for myself. My volunteer work took me into the guts of marginalized, disadvantaged newcomer communities facing barriers to accessing basic health and social services and I have stayed engaged in this work ever since.
At the same time other volunteers from a broad array of ethno-specific communities were working to establish Access Alliance. They wanted to create health services that met the very specific needs of newcomers and provide access to mainstream health organizations and social service agencies. This dynamic was being played out across the city as agencies struggled to establish themselves and get funding previously off limits to them.
There was a real sense of “us and them”—mainstream organizations really didn’t have much capacity to respond to the needs of immigrants and refugees. When I was the executive director of the Centre for Spanish Speaking Peoples in the early eighties, it was not an unusual occurrence for me to get calls from service providers in various government offices, asking me to interpret over the phone. The person on the other end of the phone didn’t ask if I could do this, they just assumed I would. And I did. In fact, that is how I first got engaged in this work; as a volunteer interpreter. Volunteers were deployed across the city by all kinds of ethno-specific organizations, to interpret pro bono for hospitals, doctors, welfare workers, teachers, lawyers, and even at Immigration.
I did find a community as a result of my foray into volunteer work; a community of dedicated activists committed to changing our city, to ensure that Toronto’s services were responsive to those with least power in this society. I have been personally and professionally very fulfilled by my experiences.
I have seen Toronto change; the needs of immigrants and refugees have been increasingly “mainstreamed”. We have a lot more data and research about all the communities in Toronto and I see these communities better represented in all sectors and roles. Diversity is now becoming the norm and the discourse around it is changing in this city.
However with change for the better, I have also seen new barriers emerge. “Racialization of poverty” is a phenomenon that has emerged, along with its companion, “place-based discrimination”. The “Canadian experience” requirements keep the majority of internationally educated professionals out of their fields and resiliency is something we are trying to understand—as a determinant of health—to support newcomer communities in building capacity and coping with challenges that continue to face them today.
As Access Alliance reflects on 25 years of work, we can celebrate positive change during this shared journey but also focus on continued challenges that lie ahead.
Access Alliance is celebrating 25 years of service to newcomer populations in Toronto. Our journey has been a collaboration between people sharing the vision of a society in which all of its people, whether born into citizenry or newcomers to Canada, have equal access to health services. Today, we commemorate 25 years of helping newcomers achieve health with dignity and in finding a sense of belonging within an open and safe community. In recognition of this milestone, Newcomer Health Matters will host a special series of blog posts, each entry published on the 25th day of every month up until the end of the year.